The Ashburton Museum collection includes all sorts of rare and common objects, and all have potential to tell interesting stories.
But what can one humble, and once ubiquitous Marmite jar tell us about both the past and today?
Like many other museums, Ashburton Museum has a number of jars that once held this tasty spread. And while over the years packaging design has changed, we are not the Marmite Museum, so we really don’t need to keep too many examples.
So, while the jar on this page isn’t the most perfect or best example, it’s interesting because of what it tells us about the use of objects and packaging over time.
Lots of people today are very motivated to reduce, reuse and recycle products, as well as resist buying items that are packaged in ways that may harm the environment.
Plastics, for example are increasingly avoided and more sustainable options sought.
Many people are also rediscovering methods to reduce and reuse waste that not long ago were common practice, such as freezing leftovers, washing out plastic bags and jars to reuse, or adding new labels for storage.
The huge increase in plastic use is very evident in museum collections, where many items come from the time before plastic was invented. No doubt museums of the future will also document today’s reduction in use.
There are also quite a lot of items that survive to show how people made do, reused or handmade the things they used and enjoyed. The Marmite jar on this page is just one example.
100 years of service
It’s notable that the Marmite jar has survived so well, to give over 100 years of service.
Marmite first arrived in New Zealand in about 1910, travelling by boat from England. It took a while to become a popular product, and at first one horse-drawn cartload of jars was enough to supply the whole country for a month.
In 1919, Sanitarium gained exclusive rights to sell these pots of black gold in New Zealand. Not long after, Vegemite was launched in Australia, sparking early sibling rivalry between the two products.
Made of the heavy white glass with a sturdy printed metal lid, the jar on this page dates from around 1920.
The lid carries the helpful message that ‘Too much spoils the flavour’. It’s something every young New Zealander has to learn: that with Marmite, more is not the best thing.
Around this time, Sanitarium worked hard to promote their new acquisition. Window displays, show stands and advertising promoted a variety of uses for Marmite, including as a hot drink, and to flavour stews, gravies, soups and savouries.
The bottom of the Marmite jar has raised words saying, “Property of Marmite Company”.
While it’s not certain that this was the case for Marmite products, this type of wording is usually found on refillable items.
Milk bottles would be a classic example. Milk was delivered to businesses and the front gate of homes across the country, until gradually phased out in the mid-1990s.
Putting the milk bottles out, with the correct change or pre-purchased tokens, was often a job for children.
Specially designed holders were made to carry the bottles, and the square section of letterboxes – today used for parcels – was designed for that purpose.
Glass milk bottles were replaced by cartons from the late 1980s, and today are often plastic.
Another example, that stills exists today was the ABC Swappa Crate. A common fixture at parties, it held 12 tall refillable beer bottles, with a slogan along the side saying, ‘Make your empties go another round’.
Lastly, a new use could be found for a Marmite jar, as was the case for this example.
We know this use, as carefully stuck to the jar’s white glass sides is a sticky vinyl label, neatly labelled ‘Cream of Tartar’ in someone’s best handwriting.
Before people had access to printers to make perfect labels, neat handwriting was a perfectly acceptable and attractive way to label any item.
Self-adhesive plastic sheet or ‘sticky plastic’ was introduced to the market in the 1960s and extensively used in home DIY to smarten cupboards, drawers and kitchen items, for example.
When this product was new, the label would have been a very trendy design and a new material, with its textured woodgrain effect in a soft fashion colour.
Being a new and modern product, the sticky vinyl was likely a little expensive. This perhaps explains why this jar has been covered in three small sections joined in at the sides.
Stretching materials and making use of every scrap would be a good way to avoid waste and use up every inch of the sticky vinyl.
Looking at this hundred year old Marmite jar today, it still has lots of life left – maybe no longer for food, as the lid is just starting to show some rust spots, but still very useful for storing other items.
The lessons the jar tells, are a good reminder of how we can all take action to make refill, reuse and repurpose now and into the future.
By Tanya Zoe Robinson
This article has been modified for publication on this blog and originally appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 20th of January 2020.
1. The Marmite jar as it would have looked with its original label.
2. Top of the Marmite jar – too much spoils the flavour.
3. The base of the Marmite jar labelled ‘Property of the Marmite Company’
4. The humble Marmite jar with Cream of Tartar label in neat handwriting on a vinyl sticky label from when the jar was reused.
5. An early Marmite advertisement